Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have taken control of Europe’s largest nuclear plant, Zaporizhzhia, near the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar, after shelling it and sparking a fire in a building at the plant compound.
Ukraine's nuclear inspectorate said that no radiation had leaked at the plant and that personnel were continuing to operate the facility safely. Firefighters were able to get the blaze under control, Ukrainian officials said.
The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting Friday to discuss the attack at the request of the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Norway and Albania.
"The world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said during the meeting.
"We've just witnessed a dangerous new escalation that represents a dire threat to all of Europe and the world," she added.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said a Russian "projectile" hit a training center at the plant.
“This just demonstrates the recklessness of this war,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said of the power plant attack before Friday’s meeting in Brussels with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western foreign ministers.
British Deputy Foreign Minister Dominic Raab described it as a “reckless bombardment,” while Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre denounced it as being “in line with madness.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov blamed the attack on a Ukranian "sabotage group" that he said had occupied the plant's training building, attacked a Russian patrol and set the building on fire as it left. He offered no evidence, and no other country appeared to take the claim seriously.
Enerhodar is a crucial power-generating city on the Dnieper River, nearly 700 kilometers southeast of Kyiv. The Zaporizhzhia facility produces about 25% of Ukraine's power.
Nuclear safety experts have expressed concern that fighting so close to the power station could cut off the plant's power supply, which would adversely affect its ability to keep nuclear fuel cool and would increase the possibility of a nuclear meltdown.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and received an update on the nuclear power plant fire, according to a White House statement released late Thursday. U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a tweet late Thursday that the Energy Department has activated its Nuclear Incident Response Team and was monitoring events.
Meanwhile, NATO countries on Friday rejected Ukraine’s request that it impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, warning that to do so could spark a wider war with nuclear-armed Russia.
"The only way to implement a no-fly zone is to send NATO fighter planes into Ukrainian airspace and then impose that no-fly zone by shooting down Russian planes," Stoltenberg said. "If we did that, we would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe."
More sanctions on oligarchs
Also Thursday, Washington heaped another round of sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.
"Today I'm announcing that we're adding dozens of names to the list, including one of Russia's wealthiest billionaires, and I'm banning travel to America by more than 50 Russian oligarchs, their families and their close associates," Biden said Thursday before a Cabinet meeting. "And we're going to continue to support the Ukrainian people with direct assistance."
Among the newly sanctioned Putin allies is billionaire Alisher Usmanov, one of Russia's wealthiest individuals. German authorities have seized his 512-foot yacht, estimated to be worth nearly $600 million. Under the directive, his private jet is also open to seizure.
The sanctions list also includes some of Putin's oldest friends, and his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.
"One of the big factors is, of course, the proximity to President Putin," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. "We want him to feel the squeeze. We want the people around him to feel the squeeze. I don't believe this is going to be the last set of oligarchs."
She also again ruled out Zelenskyy's request for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
"A no-fly zone requires implementation," she said. "It would require, essentially, the U.S. military shooting down Russian planes and causing — prompting — a potential direct war with Russia: the exact step that we want to avoid."
On the ground
Moscow's attempt to quickly take over the Ukrainian capital has apparently stalled, but the military has made significant gains in the south in an effort to sever the country's connection to the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
On Thursday, local government officials and the Russian military confirmed the seizure of the strategic port of Kherson, the first city to fall in the invasion, following days of disputed claims over who was in control. A U.S. defense official said Washington was unable to confirm the development.
Despite Russian assaults on Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol, they all remained in Ukrainian hands, Britain's Defense Ministry said Thursday.
"We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy," Zelenskyy said in a video address early Thursday. "They will have no peace here. They will have no food. They will have here not one quiet moment."
Russian troops were besieging the port city of Mariupol, east of Kherson, an attempt Mayor Vadym Boichenko said was aimed at isolating Ukraine.
"They are trying to create a blockade here," Boichenko said Thursday in a broadcast video. He said that the Russians were attacking rail stations to prevent civilian evacuations and that the attacks have cut off water and power.
Giving peace a (second) chance
Also Thursday, the two sides held a second round of peace talks in Belarus and agreed to set up humanitarian corridors with cease-fire zones so that civilians could safely flee. Ukraine had pushed for a general cease-fire.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — who is also under direct U.S. sanctions — told reporters Thursday that Russian forces would continue their effort to destroy Ukraine's military infrastructure and would not allow its neighbor to represent a military threat to Russia.
In a 90-minute telephone conversation Thursday with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin told Macron that Russia would achieve its goals, including the demilitarization and neutrality of Ukraine, by any means necessary, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Macron told his Russian counterpart that the war he started against Ukraine was a "major mistake," according to a French official. "You are lying to yourself," Macron told Putin regarding the feasibility of his goals, the official said.
Poland has taken in half of the more than 1 million refugees who have fled Ukraine in the past week, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. body says it expects 4 million people could leave Ukraine because of the conflict.
Ukraine's emergency agency said Wednesday that Russia's attacks have killed more than 2,000 people across the country.
Russia's Defense Ministry put out its first casualty report earlier this week, saying 498 of its troops were killed in Ukraine, with more than 1,500 wounded.
Russians 'stalled' outside Kyiv
A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday the Russian forces in northern Ukraine and outside Kyiv remained "largely stalled," despite U.S. assessments that 90% of the combat power that Russia prepared for the invasion had entered Ukraine.
The official said that the cities in northern and eastern Ukraine, including Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkiv, were subjected Thursday to "heavy bombardment," but that Russian forces in the north were still facing stiff resistance.
"We continue to see them resist and fight and defend their territory and their resources quite effectively," said the official, who added that Russia has launched more than 480 missiles since the invasion began.
Putin offered a more optimistic assessment Thursday, telling members of his security council on a video call that Moscow's invasion of Ukraine is progressing "according to plan."
"All tasks are being successfully carried out," he said.
The Biden administration has requested $10 billion in supplemental funding from Congress "to deliver additional humanitarian, security, and economic assistance in Ukraine and the neighboring region in the coming days and weeks," said a statement from Shalanda Young, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. That money, she said, will cover defense equipment, emergency food aid, U.S. troop deployments to neighboring countries and stronger sanctions enforcement.
VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching, national security correspondent Jeff Seldin, Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb, Istanbul foreign correspondent Heather Murdock and White House correspondent Anita Powell contributed to this report.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.